The government is sailing into uncharted waters, tossing out the paper nautical charts it has produced for mariners for more than 150 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will discontinue the traditional brown, heavy paper charts after mid-April.
NOAA will still chart rocks, shipwrecks, and other hazards, but sailors, fishermen, and treasure-hunters will have to use private on-demand printing, PDFs, or electronic maps to see the information, said Capt. Shep Smith, head of NOAA’s marine chart division.
Most mariners already use on-demand maps printed by private shops, which are more up-to-date and accurate, Smith said. Still, NOAA sells about 60,000 of the 4-by-3-foot lithographic maps each year for about $20 each, the amount it costs to print them.
Sea dogs say they will miss the charts, which some people use as decorations. “It’s the nautical history, you know, pirates and ships,” said Newburyport, Mass., harbormaster Paul Hogg, who has a chart on his office wall. “It seems more nautical. There’s just kind of, like, a feel to it.” The maps do carry a historical feel: Thomas Jefferson first asked for a survey of the U.S. coast in 1807, and the government has been charting American waters ever since.
“Think of them as the roadmap of the ocean,” said Smith, who grew up with charts of Penobscot Bay on his boyhood Maine bedroom walls. “Navigational charts tell you what’s under the water, which is critical for navigation.”
New York Nautical manager James “Smitty” Smith saw the end of old-fashioned maps coming. He sells far more of the on-demand maps on lighter weight, whiter paper. Personally, though, he prefers the old maps. “There must be some art value in them because a lot of people love them,” he said. But time, tides, and technology wait for no one, and the days of the old charts are numbered.